A Tale of Two Independent Bookstores

Writer and Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction Junot Díaz spoke at Word Up bookstore last month. The bookstore's future stands in limbo. (Photo by Paul Lomax/DNAinfo)

A recent Voices in Focus post mentioned that two independently-owned bookstores, Word Up in Washington Heights and Hue-Man in Harlem, will shut their doors. Since then, Word Up has managed a temporary reprieve.

DNAinfo reports that Word Up’s landlord, Alma Reality, has entered negotiations with the bookstore after elected officials stepped in. For now, Word Up’s future is in limbo. Reporter Sherry Mazzocchi profiled the two bookstores for the Manhattan Times — one struggling to stay alive as the other closes its doors for good. And with Hue-Man closing, Amsterdam News highlighted other stores geared toward black culture.

In her profile of Word Up, Mazzocchi interviewed a customer, Michele Grate, who said she values the bookstore as a kind of cultural center.

“We’re a multi-cultural neighborhood,” she said. People from abroad, like her parents from the Dominican Republic, brought their culture with them.

The store’s overflowing calendar of events, created by locals, reflects that sensibility – and also mirrors the new and emerging neighborhood cultures.

During the past year, the store has hosted theater, music, comedy and literary events.

However, with comparable retail space renting for $9,000 or more a month, Word Up’s future comes down to funding.

Veronica Liu, the store’s founder and unpaid volunteer, said she is exploring every opportunity to keep the store open.  Unless the landlord, Alma Realty, decides to extend their lease, they will have pack up and move their books to storage at the end of the month until they can find another home.

The store’s funding comes entirely from the sale of books, many of which are donated, and contributions from neighborhood people who say “keep the change.”

The article also featured Mazzocchi’s YouTube video of patrons explaining how Word Up became more than just a bookstore.

The shutdown of Hue-Man Bookstore, at Fredrick Douglass Boulevard and 125th Street, is not in doubt, but that may not be the store’s end, reported Mazzocchi in the Manhattan Times. After a decade of selling books — not to mention crafts and other goods rooted in African and African-American culture — Hue-Man will “shift into a new type of business that includes pop-up events in Harlem,” said the store’s CEO, Marva Allen.

Hue-Man sold books and African baskets, among other crafts. (Photo from Dominion of New York)

The store will have its first pop-up event on Sept. 6th at the Kalahari Cultural Center on Fifth Ave. and 116th St. with Miami Heat basketball star Dwyane Wade. She is also planning on doing more events in the Caribbean and Ghana.

Allen said she always had an unwavering vision of what her store could be, but a harsh economic reality intruded.

“The industry is going through a tumultuous time,” she said, “and we don’t know where it’s going to land.”

Watch Hue-Man CEO Marva Allen and patrons talk about Hue-Man, as well as the publishing industry and African-American bookstores, in a video report on YouTube from Mazzocchi.

Even as Hue-Man shuts its doors, other New York City bookstores geared to the African-American community remain in business, reported Oulimata Ba for the Amsterdam News.

One example is Sister’s Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center at 1942 Amsterdam Ave. in Washington Heights, which opened in 2000 and programs book clubs, signings and even meditation sessions.

“[Our mission] is a little different from commercial establishments because we deal more on a spiritual aspect,” said Janifer Wilson, founder of Sister’s Uptown, located at 1942 Amsterdam Ave. “We deal with folks’ souls, and souls on a soul’s mission.”

Though it sells popular books like the “Twilight” series, Sister’s Uptown offers books that pertain to Black history and culture and that help people deal with life’s trials.

Another store mentioned, Nicholas Variety at 570 Fulton St. in Brooklyn, with a smaller branch in Harlem, focuses on the Caribbean community, but reaches other groups as well.

“We cater a lot to the Caribbean market, to Rastafarians,” said Randolph Nicholas, owner of Nicholas Variety, which also sells organic skin care products and jewelry. Nicholas said they provide spiritual and wellness books and books on Egyptian history. “They’re not like novels. They offer information.”

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